“Two-Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel, performed by Aaron Wolfe
I was lucky to know both my grandfathers.
BERNIE: a tall man with very little hair, no education, thick hands, and a round belly. A worker in every sense of the word. A New York Jew in every sense of the word. He grew up in a two-bedroom cold water flat in Williamsburg, a block from the apartment I’d rent 70 years later on South 3rd (just steps below the neighborhood’s bike gang, the Legion Of Doom). His mother slept in a room with his sister. He shared a room with his father, who beat him every single night of his life. He never raised a hand to any of his kids.
He spent most of his days at the settlement house on 4th. He and his friends took art because the studio overlooked the brothel across the street. When their teacher wasn’t paying attention they’d try desperately to get a peek at the ladies behind the thick wool curtains.
He became a good artist and drew pictures of the prostitutes going in and out of the brothel and once saw his mom go in. The boys said “you’re mother’s a whore” but he knew better. His mother paid rent by playing poker against the ladies of the neighborhood and the hookers were easy money. She would take him to the games and he’d fall asleep beneath the table. The games would go until the wee hours when he’d be woken up and trudge through the snow back to the apartment in the freezing cold. That’s why he didn’t like to gamble.
He worked odd jobs, mostly hanging around the pay phone in the candy shop waiting for it to ring. No one had phones in their houses, so everyone called the candy shop. The neighborhood boys would answer the phone and then run up to get Mrs. Markowitz from 3C for a nickel or Mr. Gould from across the street for a dime. If you were lucky someone was looking for 2A. She was a prostitute. She paid well.
His father, a communist party boss, was murdered in cold blood and lived to tell the tale. Once a month he’d collect the party dues, wandering the neighborhood with hundreds of dollars on him. On one such trip a thug demanded he turn over the money and he refused. He said it was “the people’s” and that the people had entrusted him. The thug buried an ice pick in his lung. A few years later he died from complications due to the scarring on his lungs.
My grandfather was accepted into Cooper Union but turned down the scholarship because he wanted to join the Air Force to fight the Nazis. He was refused for flat feet and a bad heart, so he went to Harlem instead. He smoked a “tea stick” with the jazz musicians but didn’t get high because it was probably bad weed, or maybe just because he didn’t do it right.
He went on a date with my grandmother to Coney Island and she ate so many Hot Dogs she threw up on the boardwalk. They were married a few months later.
He worked as a stonecutter in a monument shop that was owned by my grandmother’s father. He lifted huge pieces of marble and sandblasted intricate Hebrew letters into the stone. He had a heart attack at 30. He stopped eating bacon. Then he started eating bacon again. He loved Chinese Food and took me to holes in the wall in Flushing for lamb with scallions – his favorite.
When my mom was an infant my grandmother left her at the grocery store by accident. He loved that story. He’d have been upset if I didn’t mention it.
When my mom couldn’t hold her high and climbed up on the roof, he climbed up after her. When I couldn’t hold my high and dropped out of college and moved back into my parents’ house, he climbed up the stairs sat down on my bed and said, “We all come around.”
He loved films and filthy jokes.
Before he died he’d watch cooking shows and think about his wife. He was never the same after she was gone.
In the hours after he died I waited for his body to be taken away with his two children. His body was still warm, his mouth open, his eyes closed, I miss him terribly.
LESZEK: Also called Leon, Leibel, Saba, and grandpa. He was short and frail, a learner and a teacher. He had an eidetic memory and could recall long passages of articles he read when he was 17. He spoke six languages. He had encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism and history but worked as a diamond cleaner for decades just to pay the bills.
When he was a young boy he’d take the train from Krakow to the countryside where he’d visit his grandmother. She’d meet him at the station with a big smile and a piece of cake. He was happy to see her but happier to see the boy that lived across the hall from her. After dinner he’d run outside to play soccer with the boy for hours and hours. They played all weekend long until it was time for my grandfather to return to Krakow.
The boy’s name was Karol but later, as white smoke drifted away over Vatican City, the world would know him as John Paul II.
My grandfather was raised in a Chassidic house and was sent to a strict yeshiva. He hated it. Every day my grandfather would sneak out through the yeshiva’s back door and run down the street to the secular gymnasium. When the headmaster demanded that he wear the gymnasium’s uniform and not his orthodox garb my grandfather cried that his father would disown him for abandoning his religious studies. They decided that he would at least have to wear the school’s hat. He secreted in and out of his house stuffed into his pants leg.
When he was Bar Mitzvah he traveled with his uncle to Prague and saw the Golem asleep in a synagogue.
By 17 he already knew of the famous Karmel Sisters: the most beautiful Jews in Krakow. He courted the eldest for months. Eventually Henia relented and agreed to go on a date with him. War broke out. The Jews were put in a ghetto. He and Henia snuck out of the ghetto to be married in the countryside. Then they snuck back in. The ghetto was liquidated soon after.
Years later he would walk out of “Schindler’s List” because no one had the right to make that movie until he was dead.
There are many stories of the war. None of which he told me directly.
After the war he heard from a cousin that his wife was dead. He was given poems that she wrote in the camps and then sewed into her skirt hem. Upon touching the poems he knew that she was still alive.
He drove in a stolen and cobbled together car from Krakow to Berlin where she convalesced having lost a leg. The trunk was packed with cigarettes and vodka, which he handed out at every checkpoint.
After their reunion they moved to Sweden to await permission to move to Israel. It never came. The country was young, the kibbutz over-worked; there was no room for a cripple. My father was born in Stockholm a few months later, and a wealthy uncle moved the family from Sweden to New York City.
My grandmother died on the way to the publishing party for her second book. It was about the two of them. I never read it. She always wanted to live in Westchester. She always wanted a balcony.
He remarried less than a year later. His second wife was very wealthy I always felt like a visitor in her house. All the same, I sat at his left hand for the holidays and dutifully attended to his demands — both theological and emotional. When he said my hair was too long, I shaved it off. The next time I saw him he told me I looked like him in the camps. It wasn’t a compliment.
I hated telling him I was dropping out of college. Again.
He called me “sonny,” which is what he called my father — another person he seemed to always be disappointed with. My father and I would drink a lot of booze as soon as we got to his house.
When he was dying he told me the last thing he wanted to do was dance at my wedding. He didn’t dance but instead stood and recited the entire morning liturgy by heart.
He told me he loved me very much. Then he gave the priestly benediction to me and my wife to be.
He died a few months later. He was buried next to his first wife. Bernie had long retired but he sent me to a distant family member for a good deal on the headstone.
At the funeral I learned from my dear cousins that at the end of his life he, too, loved watching cooking shows. His favorite, they told me, was Emeril.
Bernie hated Emeril.
My life is like this. I am split down the middle by these two men: a joker and a scholar, a worker and a thinker. Every day I wake up and hope that the two don’t spend the day warring. I pray for peace or at least a cease-fire between the sides – a moment of happiness or, at the very least, quiet.